Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Belief Beyond Borders

The seed from which this entry grew.

I am a Christian.
But I don't want to see a Christian nation.

At least and definitely, not in the way the current discussion uses the phrase. Proponents say that this nation was founded on God. It was also founded on the backs of slaves, the blood of indigenous peoples and the belief that man was and always should be the final arbiter of value.  Why don't we return to our roots?

But that's an easy question to answer.

I think the more difficult one is for Christians: "Why are we such cowards?" Is our faith more steady when our government points guns at others?

For me, I believe one of the real tragedies of Christian history lay in Constantine's conversion to Christianity. It would've been a joyous occasion if only he produced fruits in line with repentance, if only he weren't Emperor, and if only the Christian faith hadn't been made official. Should the Church have been given Imperial authority to decide how to punish heresy and unorthodoxy? Israel of antiquity did it, so why not Rome, why not America? God had commanded the kings of Israel past to cut down the Asherah poles and demolish the altars to Baal. If these politicians wish for America to be a Christian nation why don't they stump for the demolition of mosques and fire-bombing of Buddhist temples? Should Billy Graham lead a cadre of Navy SEALs to seize Tom Cruise and the Christian Scientists?

My problem with this whole idea of a Christian nation is my very real conviction there's a lot of heresy pork-barreled into the words "Christian nation." When I see the term used, there's a very real idea of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Christianity, a Bible-belt Christianity, a kind of Christianity liberally sprinkled with football and country music references. I have never understood "Christian nation" to mean the Christianity of immigrants and refugees, the sector of Christianity most alive and thriving in America today. I have never understood the Christian to refer to urban Christianity of prison ministries, AIDS ministries, battered women ministries and homeless shelters. It has always been megachurch Christianity, happy, shiny, plasticanity, a sickening, saccharine creed of cowardice.

I think that dirty fingernails are a sign that Christianity is done right because this is the kind of faith that grew from a soil uncontaminated with the "Cleanliness is next to godliness" tradition of Sunday bests. True faith has no geography. It realizes that Christianity doesn't end with the reach of the bayonet and border patrol but that the line separating the heathen from heaven is drawn through every heart of every person. This was Rome's mistake. When it became a Christian nation, Christianity only spread as far as the Roman gladius could take it. What of the rich Christian tradition in ancient Ethiopia and India brought by Philip and Thomas, or if your tradition has it, St. Philip and St. Thomas? They've been Christians longer than the Romans, easily have direct linkages to people who have seen Jesus, but they don't look like the cultural Christian "us."When we see bearded, dark-skinned, turban and robe wearing figures, our eyes see terrorist and not 'brother'. What lies have we bought into? How much will it cost to buy us out?

This belief I'm going to share with you next is applicable for every single area of life: The greater the trial, the greater the risk, the greater the pay-off. Doing hill sprints for a workout has a dramatic effect on improving my leg strength, lower-body power, cardiovascular system, and carving out a six-pack. But doing them requires intense mental exertion to keep going. For the rest of the day, I'll struggle with a seductive somnolence. I'll need to rest for the next few days or else I'd re-injure my right ankle and left knee. Big risk. Big pay-off.

The same is true of faith. The bigger the risk, the bigger the pay-off. When we clamor for security, what are we making safe and what are we endangering? When we want our government to secure our doctrinal borders along with our national borders, I can only see disaster as a result.  There are lots of great passages in Scripture that illuminate the proper method of Christian ministry but this one from Psalm 20 has stuck with me since my days in Baruch has been this one: "Some trust in chariots, some trust in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God." Christian ministry is not predicated, never has been predicated, and never will be predicated on safety. Parents whose great hopes for their kids go no further than well-paying jobs, social acceptance at large and regular attendance at an ornate popular church don't get it. Rather Christian ministry contains a great deal of risk and unpopular choices that buck the conventional wisdom. Congregants say they need a bigger church but Christianity seems most alive in places where the faithful gather together in obscure places and whisper in hushed tones. A movement says we need to return to our roots and become a Christian nation that doesn't tolerate gays. I think Jesus' heart would be closer to the marginalized who's been cast out, trodden down and looked upon as a subhuman than the powerful majority, the oppressors.

It feels very safe to be in a great crowd of people who talk, think and dress like you. You're making yourself safe at the risk of having genuine connection with those outside of the tribe. It's a great personal risk to go where you are vulnerable, to have someone whose views and thoughts are opposite yours to be in power over you, but the possible reward is great for doing this testifies to your belief that such things don't matter, that God alone is the one who changes hearts and the changed heart, not the political boundary, is an indicator of where faith is.

Now there's a lot more to be said about what kind of specific legislative acts to vote for and the wisdom of voting one way or another, but that's for another time.


  1. "True faith has no geography. It realizes that Christianity doesn't end with the reach of the bayonet and border patrol but that the line separating the heathen from heaven is drawn through every heart of every person."

    I think the above quotation from your piece really strikes at the core of what faith is and what it means to be a follower of Christ. Too often, in the Bible-belt, football, rural-suburbia Christianity, it isn't about branching out beyond personal borders but rather clutching tightly to "tradition." Many people are more concerned with going to church to keep up appearances than they are with actually taking something from the experience. These are the same people who likely clutch their purses or put their hands in their pockets when someone of a different color approaches them on the street.

    Many Americans fear that their Christian beliefs are going to be persecuted by the prevalence of foreign voices and foreign faiths in our country. Now, when people are told that they cannot display some sort of Christian decoration or ornamentation because they might offend someone (or purportedly ARE offending someone), I take issue with that. However...aren't those same Americans doing the exact same thing to people of OTHER faiths? Take the turban for example. It has become a symbol of fear and distrust for us (or rather it IS something that WE fear and distrust). So they take the "We don't want your kind here" stance, which, as you pointed out, would seem to go directly against Christ's teachings. How many times in the Bible did Jesus turn people away because they were different, or because he didn't like them? It's something to keep in mind.

    As for the whole "we need to take our America back" or "we need to get Christianity back" things, I can offer only my perspective from my experience. My father (and many men and women of his generation) takes a fairly hard stance when it comes to this issue. Much like those of his generation, though, he served in the military and feels like he has fought for "his" country. I think that the soldier's experience offers a unique problem. These men and women have fought to keep certain ideals afloat in the United States. When those ideas seem to be changing (or threatened, if you believe the media) I believe that they in turn rebel against what is perceived as the threat.

    Personally, I think that going BACK to ANY era in American history would be a huge mistake; I believe that our best days are ahead of us, if we will create them. As you said, America wasn't founded only on God but on the sacrifices, both corporeal, emotional, and spiritual, of many people, a good deal of whom did NOT mirror the ethnicity of the founding fathers. Too many Americans seem to forget that.

  2. In alot of ways, American Christianity has become its own entity, its own brand of the religion, if you will. The focus is on the master narrative of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant people and yet, again as you pointed out, they do not even represent the truest type of Christian! If you look at the core tenets and desires of Christianity and of Christ, much of it is not present in churches throughout the United States. Sure, there are plenty of Christians who tossed in a ten-spot at church when the collection for Haiti came around. I'll bet they felt really good about themselves--because they DID SOMETHING MAGNANIMOUS! And yet, how many of those same Christians decided to venture down to Haiti to lend a hand? Or to do something more active instead passively offering a donation?

    You and I can attest to the benefit of being exposed to a multitude of voices and viewpoints. At Baruch, we need to look no further than the first English class we had together. We were a motley bunch and yet there we were, each offering his and her own unique voice and thoughts, creating discourse about a common topic. Why can't religion (and specifically Christianity) be the same? Is the white "majority" THAT afraid of losing this perceived power by opening up to other cultures, other ideas, and other ways of life?

    The core of the issue is what I believe is at the core of all prejudice: fear as a result of a lack of understanding. We will never be a truly Christian nation because we afraid in ways that Christ never COULD be. Until we accept the fact that we live in a different time, with different values, and with different spiritual and social needs, we are going to find only more volatile resistance to the change that is ultimately necessary for our nation to live in religious harmony.

  3. I would love to address those points you've brought up (in my own circuitous way) in a future post, hopefully a near-future post.

    But until I do that, I also want to say that the Church Kristoff mentions in his column also exists in America. Given the many tirades I launch, and as deserved as they are, times and things are changing and I'm always worried that I'm writing for an era recently gone. But it's not fully gone. So I think I'll keep writing.

    Check out Jim Wallis and his Sojourners organization. They present a model of Christianity that would be a tremendous improvement over the prevailing approaches. I would love to write an entry about them, but honestly, I don't know how to say nice things outside of athletics. That's really a big fault of mine, but I'll do better.